Sunday, November 24, 2013

El Niño made me do it

Mar 1995

I do a lot of reading during the winter, for several reasons. (1) It is done in a warm house and (2) it involves a recliner - the farmer's favorite tillage tool. This intense intellectual effort, punctuated by periods of unconsciousness with drool coming out the corner of my mouth, during which my brain digests the information, can yield some pretty impressive Deep Thoughts. While the conception of a Deep Thought can be mistaken for gas pains, it is always worth the effort. My current DT, an explanation of "El Niño", is proof that thinking can be useful, as well as a refreshing change of pace for most of us.

I have been reading just oodles of intensely serious words about "El Niño". It is not, as many of us had supposed, a new dish at Chi-Chi's. No, indeed. El Niño is the latest GLOBAL THREAT from the people in the Alarming Science Industry. El Niño (literally, the ninny) is a difficult, complicated physical phenomenon that is poorly understood and almost impossible to explain to the general public, let alone farmers. Luckily, I got here in time.

El Niño is believed by most serious scientists with German accents to be caused by the anchovy – a slimy little fish that breeds furiously off the coast of Peru, or maybe Paraguay, or Pakistan – one of those third world countries whose citizens change dictators more often than underwear. The chief economic use for these fish is as landfill after being scraped off pizzas, salads, and other unsuspecting cuisine. The US Government requires restaurants to include this over-salted ocean offal in a fixed percentage of all foods in support of the Government-of-the-Day, General (Fill in name here). As loathsome as all right-thinking humans find these creatures, their acceptance in the ocean is even less, where other fish refer to them as Sea- SPAM. Indeed, all other ocean dwelling life flees from the schools of anchovies in panic, especially during anchovy breeding season, a particularly disgusting marine spectacle.

This mass movement of sea life away from the anchovies creates a strong current that has been dubbed "El Niño" by current dubbers in honor of the discoverer, Juan "Nincompoop" Gonzales-McKinsey, a marine orthodontist who was the son of a legendary flamenco artist and a traveling oatmeal salesman. Gonzales-McKinsey is also credited as the first person to blame something (his failed career as a penguin juggler) on El Niño.

At any rate, this current of ocean water filled with panicked, sweaty fish exudes a large pocket of warm, moist, and pungent air that disrupts the Global Balance causing it to go into Overdraft. The air mass usually lumbers into southern California, spends some quality time on the beach, and moseys inland, frequently stopping at the state capital, triggering dense fog and denser legislation. The aroma of this air pocket is so staggering the other normal air currents avoid it like a commitment. This shifting of the traditional weather patterns can lead to droughts, floods, and inflation, often simultaneously in the same place, across the Northern Hemisphere.

A great deal of money could be made by anyone who could predict the actions of El Niño, and as a result, official Prediction Persons are currently covering all the possible outcomes by predicting everything. There is an unknown prognosticator out there whose stab in the dark will make him or her rich and famous for maybe 18 months, or whenever the second correct prediction is required. My great concern is that we are ignoring the most pernicious effects of El Niño by focusing solely on the weather. It is my personal belief that El Niño disrupts the space-time continuum, rendering rational thought impossible, which can seriously affect all non-political activity.

For instance, El Niño causes turmoil in the grain markets. When an El Niño rumor spreads, buyers start selling and vice-versa. This is due to the fact that equally convincing cases can be made for opposing outcomes, and all of us tend to assume we are wrong in our expectations at any moment. In fact, it seems the only sure thing about El Niño is that it generates uncertainty and hence, volatility, which almost nobody wants. Almost.

Anxious citizens and worried agriculturists are hanging on every word about El Niño, not necessarily so they can act on this advice, but so they can kick themselves mentally for years afterwards for not realizing which the correct prediction was. Many will even go to the trouble to calculate the money we lost by inaction to reinforce the lesson, ignoring the fact that if we did know the future, we wouldn't believe it until it was the past. How should we be dealing with this potential boon/threat?

I don't know about you, but I'm taking it as seriously I can.

Last Man

Dec 1994

In every farming community, he is known by name and reputation. He fills a social purpose enshrined in history as far back as farming goes. Almost single-handedly he ensures the self esteem of his fellow farmers by providing a standard of measurement that makes all others seem super- competent. Like the Village Idiot of much older and unenlightened days, the Last Man is a public figure that everyone can look down upon with genial affection, and in the process, feel better about himself.

I have studied these anti-heroes during my life on the farm. Far from being the lowest of the low (or slowest of the slow), they seem to possess many of the character attributes I admire. They have a strong sense of values, and are totally unfazed by the opinions of their critics. One Last Man in my area routinely left his combine in the field on golden October afternoons, when any right-thinking farmer was tearing up and down the fields, to go to a college ballgame to see his son march in the band. He was unapologetic and unconcerned about public reaction. You see, he too had never seen the supposed trophy that awaited that First Man Done. When he took his grain to the elevator, they only asked, "How much?” – never "How fast?".

The much-maligned trend to cash rent has brought a new sense of realism to the annual Farm Race. If there is no landlord to impress, the sense of urgency can yield to a sense of propriety. Not causing compaction, good germination, lower harvesting losses, and other often neglected aspects of farming become more important. Perhaps it's a sign of middle age (the best of all possible ages), but I am less and less anxious about "when", and more and more concerned about "what" is produced.

The legendary Last Man in our immediate area has retired. His replacement, an admirable and energetic young farmer, has speeded up the operation by leaps and bounds. A certain nervousness now pervades the area, as farmers jockey for position on the speed chart. I think I am ready, after years of training. Fulfilling this social function in our community will take the pressure off a lot of driven people. Knowing that no matter how slowly your season is going, somebody's is going slower soothes nervous egos.

I've been working on the role already. Last year, during harvest, the header drive belt broke. It was about 3 pm. I parked the combine in the field just across from my house and called the dealer for the part, which he had. The dealer, however, is 55 minutes away, even with Jan driving, and he has a drop box nearby in town that parts are delivered to every evening. We were going to a cross-country meet that afternoon at 5, so we decided to wait and let them bring the part, since after replacing the belt we wouldn't have any time to work. The weather being warm, I jumped into my trunks and hit the pool, which is clearly visible from the road. 

Over the next 30 minutes, three neighbors drove combines by on their frenzied way to fields, and observed (they tend to look very closely in case Jan is around the pool in a swimsuit) with astonishment a) our combine sitting idle and intact in field ready to harvest, b) Jan and I floating in the pool and c) the presence of adult beverages. Within hours, this apparently lackadaisical approach to farming was well known around the community. For me to contradict the story was, of course, futile. I figured I might as well enjoy the role. Since this one incident provided so much enjoyment to so many, I now am working ways to farm our 1200 acres without ever being seen to work at all. That ought to drive them nuts.

Interestingly enough, according to agricultural statisticians, harvest is taking less and less time each year. By my calculations, if the trend continues, in 2078 it will be down to one day. Think of the conversations then:
"Old Bob was really slow again this year"
"Yeah - he didn't get done until 10 o'clock the day after harvest!!" or "Boy! Am I exhausted! We worked clear through lunch hour this year!"

The only nagging thought is that if I'm wondering at times what to do with my time, what are those guys who finish early doing? As we get faster and faster, soon the question why we're saving so much time looms before us. Finishing early to do - what? If idle hands are the Devil's playground, we're talking about a veritable Disneyland here. Let's take this competition to a higher and better plane. The minuscule risk of an arguable crop loss is a small price to pay for savoring the best times of the year and the best work in the world, let alone the good that it will do for farm families. Maybe the last really will be first.